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What Story Are You Telling?

What Story Are You Telling?

inspiration motivation Apr 21, 2024

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to attend a young adult (the genre) writing conference. It was one of the most interesting and enriching weeks of my writing career, even if it ended with the realization that I don’t actually write young adult fiction.

Among the amazing workshops and speeches was a moment that completely shifted the way that I both consume and create stories. It was the Keynote speech, given by Shannon Hale.

I spent literal months leading up to the conference barely able to contain my excitement over being in the same room as Shannon Hale. The Books of Bayern and the Princess Academy series changed the way I looked at storytelling. They influenced my writing to a degree I don’t think I am even fully, consciously aware of. The Goose Girl is, to this day, the book I read to help revive myself from a writing slump.

 

 

 

And yet, the author herself influenced me even more in a single hour.

I wish I’d taken better notes, but I was so enchanted by the fact that Shannon Hale was actually there in front of me that I barely managed to write down a single half sensible line. Despite this, the meaning of her words hit me so hard that even forgetting the exact words she said cannot diminish their meaning to me.

Hale asked us all to really think about what story we’re trying to tell, and then to tell that story over and over and over again.

 

Your story

To clarify for everyone, what Hale didn’t tell us to do was recycle old plots into new ones that so closely mimic the originals that it verges on self-plagiarization.

Instead, Hale wanted us to look through the types of stories that we as writers enjoy creating and find the thread that connects them all to each other and to our own hearts. She told us that her own thread was tales of young women learning to overcome great adversity through their own strength instead of depending on others to save them, and she broke down how nearly all of her stories featured this same thread in dozens of different colors.

The story Hale was asking us to look for was our big picture story, the reason that we write, because she knows that our reasons for writing are what brings each specific story to life.

ALSO: Why is Literature so Important in a World that is Literally Dying

When readers finish the final line of your story, when they close the book and set it down, when they leave you behind on a shelf, what do you want them to remember about you?

 

Finding your story

Finding the story that connects everything you’ve ever read can feel like an insurmountable task. Back in my pantser days, I’d regularly rack up fifteen to twenty half-completed manuscripts in a twelve-month period. The pages pile up so quickly, and the ideas pile up even faster! How can I look through everything and still find something that makes sense?!?

The answer is that you don’t.

By all means, if you’d like to take a trip down memory lane and relive the stories you wrote during your first foray into writing, be my guest! But past Lizzie was a sixteen-year-old writer positive she could write the high school romance of the century, and now I’m old enough that I might hurt myself if I cringe that hard.

 

 

So instead of a physical trip down memory lane, I took a mental one and asked myself the following questions.

 

Can you remember the first time you wrote a story?

My parents were out of town for the weekend, and my grandma was watching me and my brothers. She sat me down and asked me to tell her a story, and she wrote down the rather basic princess story that I told her. Later that day, she brought me a few pages where she’d drawn out the different scenes I’d described (with bunnies, of course) for me to color.

 

Now. Can you remember the first time you wrote a story for yourself?

I was fifteen and I wanted to go to a summer camp for writers, but the application – yes, application; it was nerd camp – required a ten page writing sample. Being stubborn and not quite understanding what a writing sample actually was, I wrote an entirely new story. And once the ten pages were done, I kept writing. I got into nerd camp, and I kept writing that story anyway. Eventually, I finished it.

ALSO: Where do Ideas Come From?

I still have that story, and it’s helped me find my thread. 

 

Why find your story

The simple answer is that understanding why you write makes it easier to write.

In case our name and signature product – Novel Plotting Academy – didn’t give it away, we’re big fans of plotting in all its forms here at The Plottery. We focus on plotting because it helps to direct a novel through the minefield of actually writing a novel.

Understanding what story you’re trying to tell with that novel can help direct the plot.

 

Writing is like an onion. It has layers.

 

The more complex answer is that readers can tell when a writer cares about what they’re writing.

Have you ever read a novel that just feels surface-level? I mean, yeah, the grammar is immaculate, and the world-building could be used to teach a master class, but it still just…falls flat. It’s almost like the author wrote a book because they knew it would sell and not because they actually wanted to say anything.

 

 

Now that I’ve made my point with a heavy hand, let’s use a softer one.

A good story doesn’t just depend on good technical skills. A good story depends on connecting with the reader. And the best way to connect with a reader is to connect with the story as an author. 

ALSO: How to Immerse Readers in your Story

 

Sharing your story

All of this is easier written out here and read than actually done because, at the end of the day, writing a story that matters to you is terrifying.

You’re putting a little piece of yourself into every page, and then you’re just going to let a stranger have an opinion on it? Horrifying. Allowing an editor to read through your heart and soul and tell you to completely trash the first half and redo it? Appalling. The possibility that a publisher looks at the vulnerability you’ve poured onto the page and still sends you a rejection letter? Sickening.

 

 

It is terrifying, there’s no way to pour enough sugar on it to make it palatable. It’s also the very reason your story matters.

Stories aren’t universal, and people aren’t carbon copies of each other. Your story matters because it hasn’t already been told, and someone out there is waiting for it.  Your writing will relate to someone and when your story doesn’t resonate with every reader, you’re in good company

ALSO: Kill the Impostor

I may be bad with them, but I like numbers. Statistics make me feel like there’s proof of something. So let’s take a look at the numbers for John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which is widely considered to be one of the most popular books of the last two decades. A simple Google search will show that The Fault in Our Stars has sold 23 million copies in the 12 years since its publication in 2012.

To simplify the math (because, again, I’m bad with numbers), we’re going to pretend all those copies were in English. To further simplify things (and make a point), we’re going to pretend all those copies were sold in either the US, UK, Canada, or Australia.

I would like to apologize to all my English speakers from other countries. I promise you are not forgotten or ignored.

If we take the populations and literacy rates of those countries, we get a total of approximately 371 million readers. When you compare that to the number of copies sold, it shows that The Fault in Our Stars, the global sensation, the universal heartbreaker, resonated with no more than 6.2% of readers.

You don’t need to resonate with the world. Your story doesn’t need to connect to everyone. Statistically, .05% of English speaking readers is still well over a hundred thousand.

 


 

FAQ

Can we see the math you used to work out the John Green numbers?

Right here! Again, I apologize to all the English speakers from countries not included.

US : 331,900,000 * .79 = 262,201,000

UK : 67,330,000 * .83 = 55,859,000

Canada : 38,250,000 * .83 = 31,747,500

Australia : 25,690,000 * .86 = 22,093,400

 

262,201,000 + 55,859,00 + 31,747,500 + 22,093,400 = 371,900,900

23,000,000 / 371,900,900 = .062 or 6.2%

 

Is a "story" different from a moral?

Morals are meant to teach lessons and are typically based on what the characters experience physically. Stories are meant to create connection and are typically based on what the characters experience emotionally.

 

Will my "story" change over time?

The only constant in life is that nothing is constant. The same can be said of the way that we present ourselves and our desires on the page. Your writing can and will evolve, and taking the time to rediscover your story can keep that evolution smooth.

 

How do I make my novel relatable?

Relatability stems from experience, particularly emotional experience.

I’ve never met someone that has suddenly discovered their father is Zeus, but I’ve met plenty of people who have struggled to reach a seemingly unattainable goal and realized along the way that their goal has changed.

 


Elizabeth Miles
Written for The Plottery

I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing. You can find me on Instagram (@authorlizziem) and TikTok (@authorlizziemiles)!

 

 

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